Tick-box policy won’t raise free-range kids

A new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on ‘a fit and healthy childhood’ encourages adults to let children engage in more risky activities, including rough-and-tumble play and ‘playing near potentially dangerous elements such as water and cliffs’. Children should also be allowed to go out ‘exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost’, according to the group, which is chaired by Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Floella Benjamin.

The report calls for radical change in our approach to children’s play. Indeed, the contrast between the experiences of previous, ‘free-range’ generations and today’s cosseted children is stark. ‘A quiet revolution in children’s play has occurred’, the authors write, ‘and it is unlikely to have been instigated by children who have an inborn urge to push the boundaries and take up challenges’. The report identifies adult fears as ‘the mainspring of the change’ to patterns of children’s play. ‘A further factor is societal pressure to maximise children’s opportunities to succeed, leading to an increase in parental over-scheduling of them and intensive parenting where they are constantly supervised.’

This report should be welcomed for highlighting the potential problems society is creating by over-protecting and over-scheduling children and their lives. Unfortunately, the dozens of recommendations and interventions contained within the report risk further encouraging the tick-box approach that the all-party parliamentary group identifies as a barrier to children’s healthy development.

I would argue that rather than needing more professional intervention, inspections, ratings and general bureaucracy, we need a broader public debate about how to raise the next generation. Adults are undoubtedly restricting the life experiences of children and young people by wrapping them in cotton wool. But the answer is not more Ofsted ratings of ‘the quality of school playtime’, for example, or ‘professional advice for parents and prospective parents’ that is ‘embedded into antenatal and pre-pregnancy preparation’. Instead, we need to confront the cultural obsession with safety and targets, assessments and measures. These bureaucratic measures are not conducive to developing a society in which human beings trust in their own and other people’s ability to make decisions about how to raise the next generation.

We need to discuss what it is we value, and how we want children to turn out. How should we collectively, as adults, protect and care for our children while, at the same time, challenge and test them in creative ways? Are projects that focus on letting children ‘run free’ the answer? Is it possible, or even desirable, to change the way we raise our children in a more profound way? How might we find ways to develop character, determination and independence of thought and action in future generations? These are just some of the questions that will be discussed in the session ‘Free-range parenting: reckless or responsible?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London this weekend.